During the COVID-19 outbreak, the presence of extensive white matter microhemorrhages was detected by brain MRIs. The goal of this study was to investigate the origin of this atypical hemorrhagic complication.
Between March 17 and May 18, 2020, 80 patients with severe COVID-19 infections were admitted for acute respiratory distress syndrome to intensive care units at the University Hospitals of Strasbourg for whom a brain MRI for neurologic manifestations was performed. 19 patients (24%) with diffuse microhemorrhages were compared to 18 control patients with COVID-19 and normal brain MRI.
The first hypothesis was hypoxemia. The latter seemed very likely since respiratory failure was longer and more pronounced in patients with microhemorrhages (prolonged endotracheal intubation (p = 0.0002), higher FiO (p = 0.03), increased use of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (p = 0.04)). A relevant hypothesis, the role of microangiopathy, was also considered, since patients with microhemorrhages presented a higher increase of the D-Dimers (p = 0.01) and a tendency to more frequent thrombotic events (p = 0.12). Another hypothesis tested was the role of kidney failure, which was more severe in the group with diffuse microhemorrhages (higher creatinine level [median of 293 µmol/L versus 112 µmol/L, p = 0.04] and more dialysis were introduced in this group during ICU stay [12 versus 5 patients, p = 0.04]).
Blood-brain barrier dysfunction secondary to hypoxemia and high concentration of uremic toxins seems to be the main mechanism leading to critical illness-associated cerebral microbleeds, and this complication remains to be frequently described in severe COVID-19 patients.